What Is Productive Struggle In Math [Updated 2021]

Are your kids struggling with math and having difficulty understanding math? Are you wondering about how you can effectively help your child with math? Do you want to know more about how productive struggle works in math? Then, you have come to the right place!

Learning math is unlike any other subject. In math, getting the correct answer is important but the process to reach the answer is just as important as well. In fact, when the student knows the process, the final answer is easy to get. Understanding the process in math is complex and requires analytical and critical thinking skills. It requires the students to understand the question exactly, recognize patterns in the question, make logical connections, recall facts and formulas, and solve the problem step by step to come to a meaningful conclusion.

Not understanding the process involved in solving a math problem leaves many students frustrated and when students do not get something, they tend to usually give up. It may also lead students to develop a bad habit of memorizing math rather than understanding it. Many children struggle with math because of this and may end up avoiding, fearing, or hating math. Not to worry, there are ways you can employ to help your kids develop the habit of understanding math processes, and this is where “Productive Struggle” comes in. 

In simple words, a productive struggle in math means making effort to work through the problem even in the face of difficulty. As a result, math becomes an enjoyable activity and students will actually start loving math. It will also prevent students from giving up or seeking help from others. So, why not make the productive struggle a part of the math learning process.

What is Productive struggle in math?

Productive struggle in math means to put the right kind of effort in learning math that encourages creative and flexible thinking. It is a way for students to make sense of the problem at hand and persevering to solve it by employing logic and thinking out of the box despite any struggles. Productive struggle is an important part of the math problem-solving strategy and is crucial for learning math. Without a productive struggle, the student might not be able to reason their answer.

Solving a math problem using productive struggle requires the student to focus on the exact nature of the problem, think about strategies to use, and access whether it will give a productive outcome. It teaches students to enjoy the process of solving a problem rather than just finding the correct answer. When the student reaches a dead end, they must be willing to approach the problem again from a new angle and employ new strategies rather than giving up on the problem or sticking to the initial strategies. 

Productive struggle is complex. Developing productive struggle requires the right kind of support and environment. Like any other skill, for children to develop the ability to solve math problems on their own takes practice and time. It also requires an understanding of mathematical foundations and concepts as well as an understanding of various math methods. Productive struggle is an ongoing progressive process. 

Why is Productive struggle important?

Children usually develop their own ideas about their skills level which they develop by comparing themselves to their friends and classmates. As a result, they may develop an ego or inferiority complex. They may start thinking that their classmate is smarter than them and they will never reach that level. They are also usually attracted to problems that they find interesting or already know how to solve it. Children have the tendency to avoid difficult, complex, or new problems. When children are unable to solve the problem, they lose interest and just give up. 

Productive struggle shows your child that through the right effort and attitude, it is possible to solve problems they are facing. It makes your child think about new strategies and how they can apply their reasoning to the problem at hand. This will help show your child that struggle is a part of solving the problem and when you fail, you can always begin again with a new approach. It teaches the child not to be fearful or discouraged and take any problem head-on as a challenge to overcome.

Math learned through productive struggle will be hard to forget. You need to teach your kids that by struggling they ultimately learn something new and valuable, whereas math learned by memorizing and with little understanding is usually forgotten This creates a problem by creating learning gaps due to math is cumulative in nature. 

Figuring out something that is not apparent will deepen your child’s understanding of math. And when the student is finally able to solve the problem through productive struggle, they will gain a sense of accomplishment and their confidence in math gets boosted. It thus enables a student to work through new and increasingly challenging problems without getting frustrated or overwhelmed. 

By providing students with the opportunity for productive struggle in math, you will encourage different ways of thinking and improve reasoning process as well as creativity And what’s more, it exercises your kid’s brains and develops important life skills such as having the right attitude and mindset, perseverance, determination, independence and focus which ultimately translates to other subjects and different areas of life.

Learn about 31 Ways To Make Math Fun

How to improve Productive struggle in math?

We all want to help our kids with math, and most of us are actively involved in teaching math to our kids in some way or the other. However, sometimes we may get carried away and our actions might be doing more harm than good. Though we always have our kid’s best interests at heart, our teaching methods may actually be creating bad habits in children. Some teaching methods may have unwanted repercussions on our children and inhibit their math progress. It may also stop the students from experiencing productive struggle in math.

We need to take the right steps to effectively help our children with their math lessons, and be mindful of our teaching habits. The goal should always be to motivate kids towards productive struggle. 

The productive struggle also helps develop mathematical rigor. The more students experience productive struggle, the more they will learn to persevere, focus, and think independently.

Here are some ways to help your kids embrace productive struggle in math.

Having the right mindset about math

Through everyone is capable of mathematical thinking, many children feel like they are not a math person. The first step in productive struggle in math is to have a positive attitude towards math is very important as it affects learning on many levels. As a parent, even though you yourself may not be very fond of math, you should never speak ill about math to your child. Saying things like “Even I am not very good at math” or “It runs in the family” or “Math is difficult” may create a negative impression about math in the child’s mind which might impact their performance in math. All around we hear that math is only for geniuses, which is not entirely true.

By being continuously exposed to negativity about math, your child may start feeling like math is not meant for them and they will not get it even if they try. They might start memorizing math and just aiming for the minimum pass marks. Sometimes, the child may be also frustrated with math leading them to dislike or fear math. At these times specifically, you should encourage your child. 

Work with your child together and demonstrate a willingness to learn. Show them that struggling with math is a part of the learning process that through practice and perseverance, it is indeed possible to be good at math.  Embracing a positive mindset will greatly boost learning and help overcome obstacles quicker and meet new challenges.

Jumping in to help every time

As soon as your child gets stuck in a problem, they may turn to you for help immediately. It may be tempting for you to show your child how it’s done. But, this actually causes more harm than good. You should instead motivate your child to think independently and find new ways to overcome the problem. It might be frustrating for your children at first but with time, they will learn to work their brains and gradually it will make struggle with math easier.

Give your child ample time and space to sort out the problem on their own as it an important part of the self-exploration process and leads to productive struggle in math. If they are still struggling, you can gently point them in the right direction or give a subtle hint. But, make sure they help you provide does not take away your child’s need to think. 

Always focus on independent thinking as it is beneficial for everyday life as well. Encourage your child to visualize the problem and explore their unique thought process and try new methods. And, when your child finally solves the problem on their own, it will surely boost their confidence in math.

Learn about How To Teach Your Kids Math

Not focusing on the process

In math, always focus on the process rather than the final answer. If your child understands the process, it will be easy enough to get the final answer. Understanding the process is as important as solving the problem. Always encourage your child to question their strategies and why they are using it. 

Ask your child to explain the process about how they reached the final answer and their reasoning behind the strategies they have chosen. Explaining things to others depends on one’s own understanding, and it will definitely help your child build more confidence in math. It will also improve their math vocabulary as well as help them explore their weak spots. Make sure that your child is not memorizing formula as or math steps blindly. 

Many children struggle with math due to not understanding the process. Teach your children that more than reaching the final answer quickly, it is more important to reason solutions, understand each step, and ask questions. This step should not be skipped as math is cumulative in nature and understanding a particular process might hinder the children in math as they progress through school.

Focusing on the one right method

Most of the time, we focus on only one method of solving math and enforce this unto our kids as well. This is what we learned during our school days but we must come out of this old way of learning math. Focusing just on one method eventually leads to memorization and curbs understanding and analytical thinking. 

The beauty of math is that it can be approached and solved in so many different ways. When your child gets stuck in a problem, encourage them to try new approaches or strategies, and see the problem in a new light. Let them know that it is okay to switch their strategy if the current one is not working. Through productive struggle in math, children can reduce their dependency on the one method and actually use a variety of options. This will promote mastery as well as get your child more interested in maths.

Doing so will also improve your child’s logical and creative abilities and will push them to make new connections and explore different relationships in the problem. Take a break from math drills, procedures, and formulas and let your child try their own method and struggle productively to solve the problem. You can also introduce them to math methods yourself

Having a strict time limit

We may want our children to cover up lessons in time and we may even get frustrated when the child takes too long and is not able to complete the problem in the specified time limit. 

However, we must understand that no one is born perfect and anything new takes time to master. Everyone including children struggle when trying to learn new things. This does not mean the child is slow or does not get the problem at all. Give your child ample time to understand the problem on their own as is an important part of productive struggle. Doing so will create more engagement in lessons and deepen understanding of new concepts and ideas.

Feedback Mistakes

Children will make mistakes while learning math and effective feedback is an essential component of productive struggle in math. It is up to you to nurture them in the right direction, and this is where feedback comes in. Providing feedback will help the child understand what went wrong and what steps they can take to improve their mistakes.

Avoid giving feedback just as right or wrong as feedback should be more much more than just giving the right or wrong answer. Feedbacks should be motivating, educative, and informative. It must help the child understand the direction they must take to improve themselves. Feedback should never be judgmental, criticizing, or disappointing.  

Unnecessary Praise

It is important to recognize and reward your child’s progress and show them that you are proud of them. It is important to celebrate your child’s success to motivate them further. However, praising your child for their smarts can have unwanted consequences and hinder productive struggle. It may actually heighten their ego where they feel like they are already good and they do not need to improve.  

Rather than praising for getting high marks or correct answers, try praising your child for their effort, hard work, dedication, perseverance, strategies, ideas, and innovation. This will motivate them to achieve more and they will feel happy to have their struggle recognized.

Making comparisons with other kids

Avoid comparing your child to other children or their classmates. You need to understand that every student is different and so is their learning pace and style. Teachers should especially take care of this factor. 

Make sure that you are not always calling out on the few high scoring students in the class to give the right answers or have a show of test scores. This may create a division where the high scoring student may feel that he is above all other students while the other students may start feeling that they are not good enough and no matter how much they try, they will never be as smart as the other kid. Also, avoid giving easier tasks to the weaker students as it may make the students feel that they are incapable. As a result, both groups of students might back down from making effort and it may affect productive struggle.

Instead, involve all children in the class equally. When a student does not know the answer, take the opportunity to help the students think about how they can reach a solution by themselves by asking questions, and thinking of new ideas. Praise students for their perseverance and reasoning, and encourage creative thinking rather than high scores. It will show the students that everyone is capable of learning and it is alright to not know or get stuck. Treat each child as an individual, and it will inspire the student towards productive struggle in math. 

Not showing the relevance of math in day to day life

Lack of interest in math may be because the child does not see the point of math in everyday lives and fails to make connections in real life.  Children tend to find those tasks meaningful that actually have real-life context. 

Make it a point to show your children the application and importance of math in everyday life. Make them involved in daily activities that involve math like managing finances, calculating discounts, comparing quantity, etc. Show them career opportunities with math like astronomer, statistician, accountant, math professor, engineer, architect, tc. Teach them how most of the jobs require math to some extent be it cashier, carpenter, artist, or even a fashion designer. 

Show them how all the architectural feats of the past and the most magnificent paintings are based on math. Show them how the construction of your home, furniture in your home, and modern appliances are all based on mathematical calculations. Also, show them how math is all around in nature like the formation of our universe or symmetry in nature. 

This will spark your child’s curiosity in math and make them more likely to learn math. When children realize how math is present all around, they will be motivated to learn math despite difficulties and engage in productive struggle. 

Not understanding the exact nature of struggle

To support your child’s productive struggle in math, you need to provide the right kind of support. To do so, you need to understand the exact nature of struggle your child is dealing with. 

Children struggle with math due to many reasons such as lack of understanding of a certain concept, lack of previous foundation, lack of interest, etc. Sometimes, the child may also be suffering from math anxiety or math difficulties which makes learning difficult and unnecessarily hard.

You can observe your child during math lessons to find out the areas they are having trouble with. They may be having difficulty starting, they may be having difficulty with following directions, they may be unable to apply their ideas or explain their ideas or they may be unable to recall facts and formulas. By identifying the exact area of your child’s struggle, you can take a step towards solving it. Solving the area of weakness will definitely improve your child’s overall performance in math.

Failure to address such issues may cause stress to the child and hamper their confidence in math. It may also cause the child to dislike or avoid math altogether. You need to address any underlying issues that may impact your child’s math learning ability immediately and take steps in the right direction to overcome those issues. It will take a massive burden off the child and your child will be ready to engage in a healthy and productive struggle.

Missing out on basics

Math as a subject is cumulative in nature. Math is built upon previous level foundations and hence, as math advances, it tends to get more and more complex. A shaky math foundation or lack of understanding of math facts and concepts will cause a child to struggle with math. It will create learning gaps that will get worse if it is not addressed in a timely manner.

Always make sure that your child is proficient in the math of the previous grade before moving on to the next grade. If your child is lacking any foundational concepts, make it a point to address it immediately or they may start developing struggles with math later. You can take the help of your child’s math teacher or hire a math tutor to provide your child with some additional help. 

Have a solid math foundation will enable your child to progress easily in math and prevent unwanted struggles. It also lays down a foundation for productive struggle.

Involve math games & puzzles

Children may get bored with math lessons and as a result, may get disengaged.  To keep math interesting, you can involve math in fun activities and games. There are plenty of math board games in the market like math toys, math board games etc. You can also find many ideas for math games using dominos, playing cards, dice etc. on the internet. Their games can be adjusted for different levels and specific topics you may want to focus on. You can make it a fun-filled family activity. Children will have fun playing these games and they will not even realize they are actually learning math.

Setting up math problems in such fun activities and games will be highly beneficial for learning math and will make the lessons engaging. Games help develop and enhance strategic and abstract thinking and make learning math a hands-on activity. It will also help your child progress in math faster and aim towards productive struggle.

Education is getting rapidly integrated with technology. Nowadays, there are highly efficient math apps and games available on the market.  Children are already attracted to their devices and will want to play their games. So, why not involve some math during game time. Your children will learn so much more this way. Many of these apps are sophisticated and fully customizable and will give you an automatic report to help you track your child’s progress and area of weakness. Modern classrooms are also using technology for their lessons.

Important points to remember

  • Develop a right and positive attitude towards math.
  • Provide necessary tools, tasks, and support to your child.
  • Create effective lesson plans and set goals.
  • Track progress and provide informative feedback.
  • Let your child develop at their own pace and do not compare.
  • Encourage independent thinking and creativity.
  • Make learning a positive experience.
  • Encourage different approaches to the same problem.
  • Make your child explain the math question, their strategy, and reasoning.
  • Help your child see the difference between unproductive and productive struggle.
  • Identify and address any areas of weakness.
  • Build on a solid math foundation.
  • Show the relevance of math in day to day life.
  • Reward progress and new ideas.


Productive struggle plays an important role in advancing your child’s thinking abilities, enhances their understanding of math, and makes them more receptive to new and difficult problems. It has been proven to have encouraging results in math education.  Though students thrive under the right amount of productive struggle in math, too much struggle can be counterproductive and inhibiting. 

To make sure that your kid is on the right track, you need to carefully monitor struggle and provide the right kind of support whenever necessary. Children need time to understand things. Be patient with your child and allow them to develop at their own pace. Support your child’s struggle so that it becomes a positive experience and not an experience full of difficulties and hardships.

Provide the right amount of help to your child where they will still need to think for themselves to solve the problem at hand. Avoid being pushy or providing too much help. Let your child have a break when they are worked up so they can approach the problem again with a fresh mind.  Nurture your child’s curiosity, provide constructive feedback, and show them the value of perseverance.  

It may be hard for the students, in the beginning, to figure out the process of solving the math problem at hand. But with regular practice and gentle encouragement from you, they will surely learn the art of productive struggle.

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